The wine glass ceiling

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

As someone who has been cast as a woman in a man’s world, I have long had a stock answer to the question of what the experience has been like. As a writer I have if anything benefited from being a bit more memorable than most men (the name helps) and, in the early days, from being seated next to the host or principal guest and therefore better placed to get the story than my male counterpart at the other end of the table. 

I used to add, however, that life was not nearly as easy for women actually working in the wine trade. For decades I had the feeling that, as in so many other walks of life, much of the hard work was being done by women but they were rarely allowed to occupy the top jobs.

However, in Britain at least, that has recently changed. Conviviality, the biggest wine company in the UK, has had a woman at the helm since 2013 (Diana Hunter top right), when the second biggest company, Enotria, was also run by a woman. The CEO of the third biggest, Berry Bros & Rudd, may be a man but both the head wine buyer and, from December, chair of the board, will be female. Armit and Lay & Wheeler are smaller but still important additional British wine trade examples with a smashed glass ceiling.

But things may not be quite as evenly evolved elsewhere. Australian wine publicist and writer Jane Thomson has actively promoted women-only wine initiatives and conceived the Australian Women in Wine Awards in 2015 to encourage female role models in the traditionally male-dominated Australian wine industry. (I remember on my first visit to Australia in 1981, I was introduced to ‘our female winemaker’, singular, Pam Dunsford of Chapel Hill. At Australia’s famous Roseworthy wine college, she was such an exception that she had to sleep in the sick bay.)

Jane Thomson now has such an array of female winemakers to choose from for her awards that when she staged the third annual awards ceremony in London last month, there were more Australian winemakers than had ever previously been seen together in Australia House, all of them female.

But she has been viciously abused online for her pains. It seems that cyberspace is the last frontier for gender equality; smart women who express an opinion are seen as easy targets by, one assumes, men who are clearly not smart but certainly have an opinion. This, I reckon, is sufficient argument in favour of occasional, if contentious, all-female professional gatherings.

Because the week after attending these awards I was due to speak at one such, the sixth annual Women in Wine Leadership Symposium in New York, I made the special position of women in wine the focus of my weekly email the Friday before last and have never had such a positive and engaged response, from almost as many men as women.

One of the first to respond was traditional London wine merchant and Master of Wine Charles Taylor, who reported that the quality of female candidates for every job he advertises is so much higher than that of the male ones that the sex ratio in his business is now two to nine.

Support came from such unlikely sources as someone trying to convert Indians from ‘IMFL (Indian whisky)’ to wine, a film maker in Western Australian concentrating on female winemakers there, and a woman who had enjoyed sexual equality when working in wine in Canada but reported that now, ‘unfortunately I live in Ireland which has many chauvinistic and mysongnistic (sic) men – it all harps back to the communist era of the Catholic Church'.

One particularly delightful man declared, ‘From vigneron to somm, from the laboratory to journalism, women are regularly my favourite forces in wine, and I look forward hopefully and determinedly to the day when women are adequately represented in the field', as did the representative of a women’s tasting group in Brazil who said she was trying to bring this about ‘sip by sip’.

The group of about 100 wine professionals invited to the Women in Wine Leadership Symposium in New York last week seemed to me extremely mutually supportive but more resigned than militant. They comprised wine writers, retailers, sommeliers and employees in big companies (though presumably none from direct competitors of the sponsor, wine importer Winebow) and I sensed that they took for granted that there were substantial obstacles to their progress.

On the panel designed to encourage innovation and diversity, diminutive Mexican sommelier from Los Angeles Maria Garcia told how she felt impelled to write on her early job applications ‘can carry 40 pounds’, the weight of a particularly heavy case of wine. (Physical weakness has long been one of the arguments against welcoming women into professional kitchens, too.)

Cheron Cowan, statuesque certified sommelier working at Harold’s Meat + Three in New York, explained how, when training younger white male staff members, she felt it necessary to state explicitly to guests that she was the wine director, otherwise it would automatically be assumed that she was the junior of the pair.

Her fellow panel member Dorothy Gaiter, for many years half of the folksy couple of wine writers who became so popular in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend section, recounted how heartened she is to find she is no longer the only non-white attendee at trade tastings in New York., observing wryly that in the early stages, the exceptions to this rule would give each other ‘the black person’s nod’.

I’m not sure there is ‘a woman’s nod’ and have to admit that, while I could not be more supportive of advancing the cause of women in wine, I have to suppress a groan whenever anyone mentions the particularity of wines made by women. Regardless of gender, we all have different preferences and sensitivities in how we perceive different wines, but I don’t see why women would routinely make wines differently from men.

I am delighted, however, that there seems to be increasing recognition of the fact that when accuracy and consistency is scientifically measured, women generally seem to perform better as tasters than men. This is presumably in line with the finding that women have more taste receptors on the tongue, and with my personal experience throughout my long life in wine that so many men have confessed to me that if they want to know what a wine really tastes like, they ask their female partners. 

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